December 2010 Archives

Google Culturomics Overview

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A topic which got some mild buzz in both the linguistics community and the Star Wars community is the Google word frequency tool they have been publicizing. For one linguistic view, see my Linguist in the Wild blog entry - Culturomics meets Darth Vader.

New Media Seminar Week 8 Rewind: Education and Top Chef

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Way back in Week 8 of the recent New Media seminar, there was a reading on Learning Webs which discussed current structure of the K-12 educational system and whether it could be tweaked to a more personalized boutique system in which students didn't attend a formal "school", but matched themselves with appropriate mentors in subjects each was interested in.

Others have been raising this question as well including one speaker who asked why should students get a computer science degree from a institution like Penn State when a Cisco certification would be more cost-effective and be just as valuable on the job market.

I think what both are asking is whether a formal curriculum designed for "the masses" is effective. It is an important question, but that week I had one of those oddball connections that made me think there is a value in a well-designed curriculum.

The Top Chef Advantage

I watch a lot of cooking (and fashion competition shows) and there is one truism that most contestants would agree to - there is a huge advantage to any contestant who has formal training in the profession. That is, for any two contestants with about the same number of years in experience, the one who has gone to a dedicated cooking school tends to have an advantage.

Of all the Top Chef winners, only one, Hosea Rosenberg, was not a graduate of a formal cooking school or apprenticeship program (although Rosenberg did work in Wolfgang Puck's kitchen). Very few participants trained exclusively, "on the street" get far in the competition.

This is despite the fact that chefs are judged exclusively on their cooking ability (there are no written exams on Top Chef). The advantage that going to culinary school is giving is not just a matter of being "certified" or learning only verbal knowledge - there is a real set of skills being enhanced.

Thinking on Curricula

I think the advantage something like cooking school can give is that a student is really exposed to different elements of the profession in a way different from just "reading about it." It could involve working with real equipment (labs/computers/knives) or being closely mentored by those in the profession. Students are also often exposed to underlying principles (phonemic analysis for me, proteins and acids for the chefs) and have a chance to be mentored by those in the profession (because they are PAID to mentor you).

I think another element that's important is that sometimes a curriculum may force you to learn things important to the field that may not be so interesting to you. I vividly recall one linguistics advisor informing me that I was going to learn a particular language, whether I wanted to or not, because I had to know it. It turns out that he was on 100% right. But had I been left to my own devices, I might have still avoided it.


That's not to say that I think the system is perfect. For one thing, school, especially a culinary school like the Culinary Institute of America, is very pricey. For another, some curricula really do seem detached from life as the rest of us know it. If you want your education to lead to a paying job, Icelandic studies may not be the choice for you because opportunities are few and far between.

But...there is a point where formal schooling isn't enough and we do have to rely on our life experiences and our ability to learn on our own to carry us to the next step. While it's true that most Top Chef winners have gone to culinary school, it's also true that ALL of them had lots of years in a working kitchen under their belts and all of them had learned to create new recipes other than ones learned in school.

Is the academic curricula doing its job to help our students get to that next stage?

Teens Who Won't Tweet

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We've all heard that teens don't usually Tweet, and a 16-year old guest writing for the Read-Write Web explains that this generalization is true. Like a few of us older adults, many teens have rejected Tweeting...but not for the same reason.

"Teens' lives are entirely built around their actual friends. Quite simply, why would teenagers bother using Twitter when Facebook exists, and offers so much more? Teens want a platform that allows easy, fully-functional communication to an exclusive social circle. That is, solely to their friends and peers. Twitter is a platform built for inclusive broadcast (to everyone), and to teenagers it offers no obvious value."

Hmm. Apparently many teens are unaware of the privacy settings in Twitter so that you DON'T broadcast to everyone (kind of the way Facebook has it). But wait, there's more...

"Can you think of some reasons as to why your average Twitter user keeps tweeting? Self-promotion and the ability to follow interests immediately come to mind.

Now let's compare these reasons against the reasons teenagers use social networks: They use them to extend their real social connections onto the Internet, so that their social lives can continue with a larger group of friends, even when they can't physically be with all of them at once. Self-promotion isn't a high priority for most teens as they don't have professional lives to think about, and the interests that they have are fed to them by their real friends."

Say what? Author Michael Moore Jones is clearly very intelligent and well-spoken, but clearly has missed what MY Twitter experience has been. Back when Twitter hit my radar, the only people you could Tweet too WERE your friends and family. It's true that people were broadcasting in public (and not in a good way), but there were no celebrites except John Edwards and Darth Vader, and there were NO corporate newsfeeds.

Today it's very different. As danah boyd pointed out at the Symposium last year, many teens associate Twitter with Ashton Kutcher and celebrity newsfeeds found on's Tweet Ticker (lower left). And of course CNN and other news agencies (once I knew Fox News had gone to Twitter, I knew it would be with us for the foreseeable future.

I mean no disrespect to Mr Moore (in fact, I applaud his honest reaction to Twitter), but his experience of Twitter is very slanted...kind of like most adult's experience with texting and Facebook is very slanted. In both cases, an audience has been exposed to the "worst" a service has to offer, partly through mass media coverage without realizing the other benefits and features that are out there.

By the way, I am not advocating that teens need to abandon Facebook, but I do think it's ironic that I, as a former Twitterphobe, have become more literate in a recent Web 2.0 technology than those a generation younger than me. Irony...such sweet irony.

Postscript - Dec 9

In the reply article Who Uses Twitter? Not My Techie, 30-Something Friends, author Mike Melanson points to a recent Pew survey on Twitter usage which reports that only 8% of adults overall use Twitter (although the figure is 14% for the 18-29 bracket, and I am still 29 myself).

Interestingly though the rate is higher among Hispanics (18%) and African Americans (13%) than among whites (5%). There is also a relatively high urban percentage (11%) than rural (5%) or suburban (11%). Part of this may lie in the fact that Twitter began as a text (SMS) to Web service. And SMS is actually taiilored for users with good cell phone service, but not necessarily ready access to a traditional computer. Similarly SMS is quite popular outside the U.S. where it is dirt cheap.

If you check the Twitter trending topics on any given day, I bet you will find 1-2 two topics that are actually in Spanish or Portuguese (Brazil!). Today Twitter told me that soccer star Sergio Bernal is retiring and that Copa Sul-America (Port) or the South American Soccer Cup was in progress. Even the death of "John Lenon" was a hot topic in the Latin world.

¿Quién sabía? (Who knew?)

New Media Seminar Final Thoughts

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We wrapped up the Baylor New Media Seminar this week, and our discussion turned again to the format. I think almost all of us had a love/hate relationship with the selected readings from The New Media Reader (MIT Press). I confess they weren't what I what I were expecting either, and, for better or worse, the infrastructure from Baylor was not what I was expecting either.

Despite the agony though, there was something valuable here - otherwise the discussions sessions would not have continued with as many people as it did. For me, there were two factors - the synergy of the group and (ahem) the readings.

The discussion was obviously very important and it was because we were willing to be open and honest. We were not afraid to use terms like "crap", nor did we back off from defending our ideas. I really learned a lot about my colleagues. I even learned to appreciate some readings that I felt were crappy in a new way. We had some really good, challenging discussions.

Would the experience have worked without these readings though? Obviously both the editors of the original volume and Gardner Campbell at Baylor felt they were valuable, so I'm assuming they "got" them even if some of them were opaque to me. I wonder if part of the disconnect was because of Campbell is approaching this as a literature specialist.

I have to confess that one of my least favorite classes in my academic career were literature classes. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy reading novels, even some very classic works, but the approach to analyzing literature does not always seem compatible to more technical analytic approaches. Even the way a theoretical linguist and a literature specialist views language is VERY different.

What do I mean by "VERY different", by the way. Take a language like Latin. A literature specialist would probably focus on the best authors like Cicero, Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro) and Ovid, and if they focused on Vergil, they would focus on his exquisite use of language and imagry and maybe discuss how the Aeneid reinforced the official Augistinian Imperial narrative.

When a linguist looks at Latin, they likely target graffiti, casual letters and "mistakes" to see how Latin was spoken on the streets. And when they look at Vergil, they may be comparing poetic syntax with related languages to see if any proto-syntax emerges. Sometime we catch a few sound changes in progress too.

Asking some technologists such as myself to approach the history of technology as rhetoric may be a challenge. BUT (and I keep coming back to this word), it is sometimes good to stretch your mind doing something you're not comfortable doing. I do recall books and movies that I detested in earlier years that provided interesting touch points in my later life. I don't necessarily want to visit these events, but they do make me realize that the experience was not wasted - I did learn something, even if I didn't enjoy it.

A good example is probably the original Alice in Wonderland which we read and analyzed in 8th grade. I admit that a lot of it went over my head, but now that I know more history, I see the parallels Carroll was trying to make and I find it much more entertaining...enough to enjoy the last Tim Burton Alice movie (maybe 3D helps).

At the last session we discussed whether it was worth continuing the discussions with readings a member of the group selects. I will be curious to see if we have the same passion when we don't detest that week's reading as much, but I will probably be relieved as well.

New Media Seminar Week Final!: Comics and Design

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We ended this seminar with a reading from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics which was presented in...comic format.

Frames and Time

The topic was "Frames" or how we interpret the passing of time based on the sequence of panels. Perhaps the most interesting observation is that even most panels are still images, very are are actually single moments in time. McCloud points out that if there are 2 or more dialogue balloons in a panel, we have to infer a time/sequence that the characters would convey the dialogue. Other panels may also feature motion lines or other conventions to convey the passage of time in a single image. In other words, comics have to compress reality a bit in the images in order to push the narrative forward.

Design Question: How do we learn this?

I actually read the whole thing many years ago, and I recall thinking "Duh". It's not that McCloud is not accurate, but that these conventions are so well designed that comic readers tend to pick them up unconsciously just be reading them. In other words, there no comic book literacy lessons that readers have to learn beforehand. Most of understand that THWACK! is a sound effect, dialogue takes time and the difference between omniscient narration in boxes at the edges of the panels and character dialogue balloons.

Not even Twitter and Facebook are this easy.

How did this happen? Partly because comics do adapt from other conventions like text. For instance both Western comics (images & dialogue) and Western text are read left-to-right, top-to-bottom. In Japan though, manga comics might be published so that images and text are scanned right to left (they are reversed when they get translated to English).

What I think is more interesting are the new conventions that were introduced with minimal fuss. Illustrators drew in some lines to simulate motion, and readers generally got it. We also figured out dialogue balloons and that the line pointing to a character meant that the character is the speaker. More interestingly, these conventions have been translated across cultures into places like Japan, China and Brazil.

Are comic book artists tapping into hard-wired visual processing algorithms? Or is it just that they understand our cultural visual vocabulary so well? I think you can debate either side, but we can learn a lesson in adaptation here. Comic book illustrators, for the most part, have been able to develop a visual vocabulary that is easily learned. I'm sure there are lots of lessons here if we could expand on this study from creating better diagrams to understanding how to make new interfaces.

The S word - Semiotics

Another interesting point for me is that McCloud is delving into a lot of semiotic theory...without ever once using the word semiotics. He really does an excellent job of explaining the mechanics of delivering the narrative in comic form without ever getting too technical (it wasn't just the images - it was the combination of images and pithy explanatory text that worked). One of the target audiences may be instructors, but it really does work for a comic book reader wanting to learn more about the craft.

This is a great example of making an esoteric topic accessible to general audiences. And that's a skill we all wished were a little more common this semester.